COLUMBUS - About one in three owners of exotic animals still lacks a permit more than three months after a state law requiring it went into effect, according to records obtained from the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
The permits are among the last pieces of the state's crackdown on private ownership following the 2011 release of dozens of wild animals by a suicidal owner at his eastern Ohio farm in Zanesville. Fearing for public safety, authorities hunted down and killed most of the animals, including black bears, Bengal tigers and African lions.
Owners in Ohio were required to obtain the state permits by Jan. 1 of this year.
The Agriculture Department had issued 51 permits as of Friday after receiving 82 applications, according to state data obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request. Permit applications for 23 owners remain unresolved. Eight other applications were dropped either because the animals died, were relinquished to the state or were sent elsewhere.
State officials say the delay in issuing permits comes as owners try to meet the law's caging standards and other requirements. Some have not yet upgraded their facilities. Others have not implanted their animals with a microchip so they can be identified if they escape or get loose.
"People are in different stages of coming into compliance," David Daniels, the director of the state's Agriculture Department, said in an AP interview.
Several of the unpermitted owners have a menagerie of critters. One has 96 animals, including 32 tigers and 28 lions. Another lists two white Bengal tigers, a pair of American alligators and three Syrian brown bears among the 21 animals on the property.
Daniels said the Agriculture Department is trying to work with those who want to comply with the law.
"We would like to have all of them done, but we're trying to be careful, we're trying to be thorough," he said. "I think that we've tried to live within the spirit of the law and make sure that everybody knows that they've got a certain amount of time to be in compliance."
In order to obtain a permit, owners must pass a background check, pay fees, obtain liability insurance or surety bonds and show they can properly contain and care for the animal. Signs must be posted on their premises to alert people there are dangerous wild animals there. The owner's property also must be no smaller than 1 acre, though Daniels has waived that requirement seven times - mainly for owners of smaller animals that are typically kept indoors.
Susan Fitzgerald and her husband have had a black bear for 12 years. She said they have submitted paperwork and paid the permit fee to the state, but they are struggling to get an insurance policy.
"Nobody knows anything about the insurance," said Fitzgerald, of Canton.
Timelines in the 2012 law have been problematic, Daniels said.
For instance, owners had to comply within days to new state rules for housing and caring for the animals. While temporary standards had been in place, some owners were not eager to immediately change their facilities, knowing that additional tweaks to the rules could be made.
Despite the hang-ups with the permits, Daniels points to progress Ohio has made since the law took effect - including the permits that have been issued. He said those facilities or homes are now safer for the animals and the public.
Additionally, the Agriculture Department has found new homes for animals confiscated or surrendered to the state.
Ohio constructed a roughly $3 million building to temporarily keep such creatures. Since opening in March 2013, the taxpayer-funded facility has held at least 35 animals. None was euthanized. And the state has placed animals in accredited sanctuaries or rescues in five states. Many left healthier than they arrived.
"I don't think we would have been able to do that without the facility," Daniels said.